A LONGSIDE the urban unrest that has swept France in the last two weeks, another battle has been taking place. It is the political contest over who among France's politicians will gain and who will lose from the rioting. Thus far, one observation seems inescapable: tough talk seems to be working with the public, as opposed to a discussion of the general condition of the alienated children and grandchildren of immigrants, whose frustration has fueled the violence.
Perhaps one should take no joy in his demise, but Chirac appears finished, at least if Mr. Smith is correct; poèt manqué Dominique de Villepin appears wounded; and tough-talking Nicolas Sarkozy, at this point at least, emerges a clear winner.
By the way, one is puzzled, if not amused, at Mr. Smith's characterization of those who torch cars, shoot policeman, terrorize firemen, beat elderly citizens to death and set the handicapped on fire, as the "alienated children and grandchildren of immigrants," as though in their "frustration," fueled by an excessive intake of sweets, they had merely frightened the puppies by climbing up on the table and overturning the cake at a neighborhood birthday party.
But it may be too early to draw conclusions about the outcome of the rioting in France, let alone to name winners and losers. (The latter, it should be noted, is a favorite activity of the mainstream media in general, to say nothing of The New York Times in particular: by late April of 2003 all had concluded we had "lost" in Iraq.) The Australian describes a disturbing new turn in the violence: the appearance for the first time of a hoard of thugs — excuse me, "children and grandchildren" — in a tony section of a major French city, Lyon:
But over the weekend the rioting did not abate. Indeed, for the first time since the violence exploded on October 27 after two teenage boys were electrocuted in Clichy-sous-Bois -- the pair took refuge in a power substation believing they were being chased by police -- the crisis spread to a major city centre.
Rioters struck at the heart of Lyon, considered France's second-most important town, at 5pm on Saturday. About 50 youths descended on Bellecour Square -- the Lyon landmark beloved by locals and tourists -- a few hours before the authorities were due to impose a curfew banning unaccompanied youngsters from the streets of the city after dark.
The brazen attack frightened shoppers and local business people, who quickly closed their enterprises before riot police restored a semblance of order. Two people were arrested and investigations are continuing.
A few dozen cars were torched in central Paris a week earlier, but the menacing presence of a large gang of rioters had not been experienced in a major French urban centre since the civil unrest broke out.
By the way, in today's Craig S. Smith New York Times article, the words "Muslim" and "Islam" make no appearance. Perhaps this is understandable, given that this piece is chiefly concerned with giving an account of "ethnic French," for lack of a better term, winners and losers. But consider this paragraph on Le Pen near the end of Smith's account:
Position on the Unrest Mr. Le Pen has seized on the unrest to support his longstanding contention that the French nation and European culture both are threatened by non-European immigration. His thinly veiled racist attitudes were well expressed in a computer-generated video that his party posted on its Web site last week. The video, with the headline "Immigration explosion in the suburbs; Le Pen foretold it," depicts Paris burning as if after a war. It then shows a red-white-and-blue fireball falling from the sky that eventually cleanses and renews the city, France and finally Europe as the clouds recede toward North Africa.
Now M. Le Pen surely is a racist. And in his racist ranting he must at some point have touched on the issues of Islam and Islamic extremism. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is solely the darker skin and the North African origins of (many of) the rioters that has him riled up. But in any case, since the riots are over, we can now embark on writing their history, secure in our certainty that Islam had nothing to do with "the problem."